Brooding 49

To Clint’s surprise, Frigga insisted on introducing him personally to the captain of the Herǫr Drengr, Gløggrsyn, who reminded Clint of an old drill sergeant from when he had undergone a crash course version of boot camp to join S.H.I.E.L.D. The crusty warrior pierced the Human with a skeptical eye but was civil enough (perhaps due to the Queen’s presence) in explaining the duties and responsibilities expected of every member of Asgard’s army. None of the regulations were surprising to Clint, however; neither was the fact that Thor and his friends had tagged along to be spectators of his interview.

“This whole thing is beginning to feel like a circus,” he thought wryly to himself. “Well, at least I’m used to that!”

The Captain led their party into the special training facility used by the Herǫr Drengr, a vast enclosed space that would make any football stadium on Earth envious. The entire area was set up with holographic projectors which could simulate a mountain forest, a barren wasteland strewn with debris and ripped by howling dust devils, or a bustling city complete with pedestrians. Gløggrsyn explained that the first test was to shoot the animals that would appear throughout the forest course; the second was to shoot various enemies in the wasteland, with higher scores given for more lethal shots; and the third was to shoot only enemies in the city environment without harming any civilians.

“So it’s a real-life simulation,” Clint remarked with an approving nod. “That’s the best way to test someone for something like this. I’m just impressed that you can do it all indoors here. Your wind-generating technology alone would blow Earth scientists away!”

Volstagg and Fandral guffawed at the joke but Gløggrsyn remained impassive as he set up the tests. The Queen and the rest of the observers would stay in a separate room protected from the wind and any stray arrows, able to see the action through a window.

“Before starting the test, we will do a simple trial,” Gløggrsyn told Clint. “Red discs will be shot out at random; if you cannot hit a good percentage of them, there will be no need to perform the actual tests.”

“Fair enough,” Clint agreed, making sure his skeletal glove was fitted properly. “I have fifty arrows with me. Will that be enough?”

“There will be between thirty-six and forty targets,” Gløggrsyn said curtly. “If you run out, you may use your spent arrows… if you can find them.”

Clint grinned with confidence; this was one area in which he knew exactly what he was capable of. “All right then – let’s get started!”

The red discs were shot out of concealed traps, much like rifle shooting competitions on Earth. Clint held the record for all of the categories (in the disciplines of sporting, trap, and skeet shooting) in which he had been tested by S.H.I.E.L.D. with bow and arrows; only Natasha had tied him in a few categories with conventional firearms. When the red discs started flying, Clint calmly took them down, even as they were spit out faster and faster. He could hear the machines gearing up to release them so he was almost letting loose his arrows before the discs had left their traps. Towards the end he was notching two or three arrows at once and shooting them split seconds apart.

“That was fun!” he called out when the machines stopped whirring. “How many were there?”

“Forty,” Gløggrsyn answered over the sound system.

“Well, that’s perfect – I have ten arrows left,” Clint replied with a smile, then began gathering the arrows scattered in a wide circle around him. The fragments of the discs crumbled to powder beneath his feet.

“What do you think?” Frigga asked Gløggrsyn with the microphone turned off.

“Not bad for a Midgardian,” was his grudging answer. “But he must pass the other tests as well.”

In the forest hunting simulation, the targets were projections rather than actual discs, but the test equipment added real-life sounds – the wind rustling in the leaves, the animals’ soft footfalls, even Clint’s feet crunching the projected twigs on the ground – making it feel like he was in an actual forest hunting actual, living animals. After shooting a few rabbits and smaller game, Clint realized that the projected trees felt solid, so he attempted to climb one and found, to his astonishment, that it was possible. From his new vantage point he took down a stag and two bears in quick succession, then found a taller tree to give him an even wider view. What he saw from that perch made him swear like a sailor, forgetting the presence of the Queen and Sif.

“The fuck is that?” he asked of nobody in particular. “Fucking hell!” he added before letting fly two arrows aimed at the creature’s beady, glowering eyes.

One arrow was deflected by an antler while the other became embedded in a leathery cheek. The creature then charged Clint’s tree, its head down in preparation to batter it like a ram.

“Bloody motherfucker!” Clint cried after the first hit. The tree shook precariously, warning that it would not withstand much more. Clint leapt off the moment of the second hit to land directly on the creature’s scaly back, from where he shot point-blank into its head. The arrow pierced through the cranium with a sickening crack but the creature continued to stagger back from its impact with the tree. Clint jumped off to the side and sank two more arrows into its chest, hoping its heart would be in the same general area as most other animals. With a final twitch and a shudder, the beast lay still. It and the projected forest vanished as the test ended.

“Well done!” Thor cried from the observation room, his voice booming in the now-empty testing area. “You took down a bilgesnipe single-handedly! No other Midgardian can boast of such a feat.”

“Was that what that was?” Clint responded, somewhat out of breath. “I’ve never seen anything so… ugly!

“They are revolting… and dangerous,” Thor agreed. “Had you not been high in the tree, it would have trampled you and everything else in its path.”

“And I’m guessing if the trees are real enough to climb,” Clint said, picking up the arrow which had pierced the creature’s skull and noting that the tip had been blunted, “getting trampled by that thing would have hurt just as much as the real deal?”

“We have had some injuries during testing,” Gløggrsyn answered, “but have no fear: our healers are highly skilled. We have yet to suffer a fatality.”

“Oh, that makes me feel so much better,” Clint mumbled while gathering his spent arrows.

The second test, although Clint did not know it, started with a simulation of Svartalfheim during a storm. The dry, howling winds blew sand into his face and obscured any sounds. Not having the benefit of goggles, Clint squinted against the wind and headed for higher ground. He took out several targets (projections of Dark Elves) from behind a rocky crag, then had to elude another group by burrowing into the gravelly sand for cover, shooting two of them blind before emerging to confront the other three in hand-to-hand combat. He used the blades on the ends of his bow to great effect, nearly decapitating one of the Dark Elves, and threw his dagger at another, hitting him dead in the eye. The last one he stabbed with an arrow, pulling it out and notching it in time to shoot an outlier who had just come over the crest of the hill. There were two more behind that one, which he managed to skewer with one arrow. Though the test was grueling, he was performing at the top of his game.

Then the winds grew colder and the sand turned to snow. Clint saw a looming shape appear ahead of him – the ruined buttress of a larger structure – and scrambled to climb it to gain a better vantage. His ascent was made difficult by the bitter cold and the ice forming in its nooks and crannies. He crouched low behind a broken section of stonework and spotted some figures moving below. It was difficult to make out their forms in the driving snow, but as he prepared to shoot them he realized that they were enormous. In fact he was aiming at scale-model projections of Frost Giants.

The first three he picked off when their fellows were not looking, but the fourth fell with a shout of pain that drew the attention of the remaining Jötnar. They began running towards him with a battle cry, two of them hurtling their weight against his already broken-down foothold while the other three swarmed up an adjoining buttress from where they could throw their icy axes at him. He started using his explosives, deflecting their weapons to rain down upon the other two in a shower of molten metal and ash, then shot the leader in the eye and sent him tumbling to the ground as well. One of the blue-skinned giants jumped across to Clint’s structure, heedless of the shudders that shook it as his fellows tried to bring it down. Clint stared for one instant into the Jötun’s blood-red eyes before shooting him in the middle of his forehead. The projected creature fell thirty feet to the ground.

The two below were beginning to succeed in loosening the buttress from its roots. Clint startled all who were watching by leaping over to the other one and slicing the throat of the Frost Giant there, then picking off the two below with an arrow each. The projections began to dissolve, forcing the archer to slide hastily down the soon-to-be-nonexistent buttress before it disappeared altogether.

“Those last ones,” Clint demanded, turning to the observation room as soon as its window reappeared, “were those Frost Giants? Of Jötunheim?”

“Yes,” Frigga answered, comprehending his thoughts.

“So that’s what Loki would look like?”

“Yes.”

“And my kid… he might look like that too?”

“It is possible.”

“Huh.” Clint gritted his teeth, absorbing this information. “And they’re used as examples of enemies in training exercises… as a matter of course.”

“They pose one of the greatest threats to our realm,” Frigga quietly explained. “They are a war-like race, often raiding other realms. The Einherjar must train to fight them… to protect all the realms from their fierce attacks.”

“Hm… well… they’re not nearly as ugly as Loki made them out to be,” he muttered as he turned to pick up his arrows again.

Clint did not expect his remark to be heard, but the Asgardian sound system was sensitive. A hush fell over the spectators as the Warriors Three and Sif realized what it truly meant for Loki to be a Jötun. Thor pondered anew the ramifications for the child who would be born to his brother (for he still could not think of Loki as anything else) and for the Human who would be its father. Frigga, however, had already considered such things; what took her aback was Clint’s final comment which made her realize that Loki – as a result of her and Odin’s deception – had grown up despising his own race. Which, she knew, must have translated into a deeply ingrained self-loathing.

“Oh, Loki…” she whispered, aching to think of his helpless self-hatred. “Oh, my poor boy!”

Clint had only enough time to gather what was left of his arrows before the third and final test began. He found himself in a busy Asgardian market; the Dark Elves were fairly easy to spot but hard to target with so many civilians swarming through the streets. Clint hoisted himself up the side of a building, took aim, and shot down the escaping enemies. The Frost Giants who showed up later were easier to see and target because of their size, but they were also harder to kill with one shot. Clint tried not to think while he aimed for their red eyes and took them down.

Then a bilgesnipe was set loose on the projected cityscape. Clint jumped down to the street, directly into the beast’s path, and aimed for the nostrils this time, instinctively sensing that the soft tissue of the nose would allow his arrows to plunge deeper than the creature’s leathery, scale-covered skin. He was right. Both of his arrows penetrated into the brain, killing the bilgesnipe immediately, but the brute continued to move forward from sheer momentum. Clint had to dive out of its way before the massive creature came to a stumbling halt, collapsing where the Human had been standing mere moments before.

He picked himself up off the ground as the projected beast and surroundings dissolved again, out of breath and drenched in sweat but feeling satisfied with his performance.

“Your second bilgesnipe!” Thor’s voice thundered through the cavernous space. “We will set the bards to writing ballads of your deeds today!”

“Well, that’s a first,” Clint dryly quipped, a grin spreading across his face.

The group gathered around to congratulate the Human, but Gløggrsyn beat them all to clasp Clint’s arm in a hearty grip.

“The Herǫr Drengr will be strengthened by your bow,” he intoned – the traditional words of welcome to the elite archery division – with genuine respect shining in his eyes.

“Thank you. I hope so,” Clint humbly responded before being subjected to the others’ more effusive outbursts of admiration.

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